NEW YORK — If you say it often enough, eventually you start believing it yourself.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly Thursday, made plain that he truly believes that Israel is becoming increasingly popular in the world — including the Arab world — and that, therefore, a peace deal on Israel’s terms is just around the corner.
In his 40-minute address, which was notably devoid of gadgets, visual aids or over-the-top rhetorical shtick, Netanyahu said Israel’s hi-tech prowess and anti-terrorism know-how make it an attractive ally. More and more countries already realize that, leading them to reassess their approach to the Jewish state, he argued.
“Israel’s diplomatic relations are undergoing nothing less than a revolution,” he declared.
Until now, the UN has been notoriously anti-Israel, he said. “You see, everything will change and a lot sooner than you think. The change will happen in this hall, because back home, your governments are rapidly changing their attitudes towards Israel. And sooner or later, that’s going to change the way you vote on Israel at the UN.”
The Arab states in particular are warming up to Israel, he asserted.
“For the first time in my lifetime, many other states in the region recognize that Israel is not their enemy. They recognize that Israel is their ally,” he said. In the coming years, the prime minister vowed, Israel and the Arab world will “work together openly.”
Thursday’s speech was, of course, not the first time Netanyahu has spoken about the ostensible rapprochement between Israel and the Arab states. This unspoken alliance came into being due to a common threat — Iran – and will ultimately help Israel reach peace with the Palestinians, the prime minister has long insisted. But even as Netanyahu touted the diplomatic “revolution,” statements from Arab leaders at the UN General Assembly this week were as hostile as ever.
In 2013, speaking from the same stage, Netanyahu said that the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and other threats in the region “have led many of our Arab neighbors to recognize, finally recognize, that Israel is not their enemy.” This, the prime minister said, “affords us the opportunity to overcome the historic animosities and build new relationships, new friendships, new hopes. Israel welcomes engagement with the wider Arab world.”
Since then, the prime minister and his senior aides have repeated the notion countless times, gushing over increasing security cooperation. These ties have to remain clandestine because, as Netanyahu’s confidant and Foreign Ministry director general Dore Gold said in June, the Arabs “have sensitivities.”
Getting better all the time
On Thursday, Netanyahu took his usual argument one step further, calling on UN delegates to lay down arms because the “war against Israel at the UN is over.”
“Perhaps some of you don’t know it yet,” he said, “but I am confident that one day in the not-too-distant future you will also get the message from your president or from your prime minister informing you that the war against Israel at the United Nations has ended.”
While acknowledging persistent rumors of an upcoming anti-Israel resolution at the UN Security Council, Netanyahu said that “regardless of what happens in the months ahead, I have total confidence that in the years ahead the revolution in Israel’s standing among the nations will finally penetrate this hall of nations.” In 10 years, he predicted, an Israeli prime minister will stand on the same podium and actually applaud the UN (he did not say if he expects it to be him).
A few minutes later, in a segment reaffirming his commitment to peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said while he stands ready to negotiate all final status issues, he will never negotiate “our right to the one and only Jewish state,” a line that elicited some clapping — from the Israeli bench in the delegate’s hall and from Netanyahu’s guests on the balcony. Netanyahu always invites American Jewish leaders to his UN speeches, most of whom greatly admire his oratory talent and agree with his policies.
“Wow, sustained applause for the prime minister of Israel in the General Assembly?” Netanyahu marveled. “The change may be coming sooner than I thought.”
It was unclear whether Netanyahu, from his podium, could not see that only his designated cheerleaders clapped, or whether he did not want to see it. But everyone else in the room saw that very few, if any, UN delegates clapped.
Later on Thursday, while receiving an award from the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, Netanyahu said he believes it will take less than 10 years for the automatic anti-Israel majority in the UN to disappear.
In trying to get more votes for Israel, Netanyahu is counting mostly on Israel’s growing ties with many African countries. While his declaration of Africa as a “top priority” for Israel has yet to translate into a tangible change in voting patterns, the summit he hosted at the UN, attended by leaders from 17 African nations, impressively underscored Jerusalem’s rapid rapprochement with many countries on the continent.
Netanyahu’s vision of an Arab-Israeli détente, however, seems much further away.
“I remain committed to a vision of peace based on two states for two peoples,” he said at the UN. “I believe as never before that changes taking place in the Arab world today offer a unique opportunity to advance that peace.” He welcomed “the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative” and welcomed a dialogue with Arab states “to advance a broader peace.”
But Netanyahu has said all these things many times before, and so far they have failed to yield noticeable results. To be sure, Israeli officials credibly assert that there is much covert cooperation with Arab states. There are also some public indications of warming ties: former Saudi general Anwar Eshki visited Israel in July and on Thursday the Kuwaiti delegation to the UN for the first time stayed in the room for Netanyahu’s speech.
But even a cursory look at the speeches the leaders of these countries held this week at the General Assembly shows that, clandestine cooperation notwithstanding, their animosity toward Israel remains strong.
“Israel continues in its military occupation, terrorist practices and acts of aggression, including its siege and other serious violations of International law, without fear of retribution and accountability,” the crown prince of Saudi Arabia declared in his remarks. He called on Israel to end its occupation of Palestine, “along with the rest of the occupied Arab territories, including the Syrian Arab Golan [and] southern Lebanon.”
Progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains impossible due to Israeli settlements, Israel’s “ruining the Arab, Islamic and Christian identity” of Jerusalem, and “the heartless policy of repression practiced against the Palestinian people,” he said.
The Middle East should be free of nuclear weapons, the crown prince continued, making it an “absolute need for Israel” to place its nuclear facilities under an international inspections regime.
The prime minister of Kuwait likewise slammed the “oppressive practices of the Israeli occupation forces, and Israel’s consistent and unjustifiable use of excessive force against the Palestinian people.”
Israel continues its “aggressive practices and policies” without international scrutiny, and therefore the Security Council needs to “compel Israel” until a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines is established, he went on. He then hailed his government for preparing an international conference on the suffering of the Palestinian children to showcase “Israel’s serious and persistent violations of International conventions and norms.”
To some extent it makes total sense that an Arab rapprochement would have to come incrementally, as the citizens of many Arab states were fed anti-Israel propaganda for years and cannot be expected to accept their leaders’ abrupt embrace of Israel due to suddenly aligning strategic interests.
But Jerusalem could certainly expect from states that no longer see Israel as their enemy and enjoy the fruits of covert cooperation with to tone down the hostile rhetoric. No riots would have broken out on the streets of Riyadh had the crown prince omitted a reference to Israel’s “terrorist practices.”
Filled with hope
Netanyahu, in concluding his 40-minute speech, said he always admired Shimon Peres’s “boundless optimism,” and like the former president, he too is “filled with hope.” One of the reasons for the surprising display of optimism was the belief that, “despite all the naysayers, in the years ahead, Israel will forge a lasting peace with all our neighbors.”
Does Netanyahu, the perennial pessimist, really believe in peace for our time? It is impossible to know. But his professions of Israel’s constantly improving standing in the world, and his vision of an imminent Israeli-Arab détente that will lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace, seems to grow bolder from speech to speech, notwithstanding the facts on the ground.